Hong Kongers staged demonstrations in ten different cities across the UK to protest the first anniversary of the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law and the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.
SOPA Pictures | light flare | Getty Images
LONDON — It’s been nine months since Adrian Leung and his family packed their lives in Hong Kong in search of a better future in Britain.
The 51-year-old teacher was set to move to Canada with his wife and son, fleeing political unrest back home. But when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced a new visa scheme granting Hong Kong citizens the right to residency – and possibly citizenship – in the UK, he said his choice was clear.
“Compared to the Canadian program, the criteria for the UK program are much lower: we just need to live in the country for five years. For me, it’s much easier,” Leung told CNBC.
Many in Hong Kong are angry at what they see as China’s encroaching grip on the semi-autonomous region following a new national security law passed in June 2020.
The law, which seeks to outlaw secession and subversion of state power, has been widely condemned by Western governments and human rights watchdogs as undermining the “one country, two systems” principle. under which the former British colony was transferred to China in 1997.
This prompted Britain to offer sanctuary to people born in Hong Kong before its handover. While it’s unclear how many left because of the Security Act, Britain’s offer of refuge came with that specific purpose and was timed accordingly. The UK said it would help those born in Hong Kong before its transfer, citing “China’s failure to meet its international obligations to Hong Kong”.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Department of Information Services said it “deplores and opposes” the launch of the UK visa, while the Chinese Embassy in London said the scheme “interferes in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs”.
China has separately rejected claims that the law undermines local freedoms, saying it was a necessary step to curb the chaotic mass protests that plagued Hong Kong in 2019.
Leung, some of whose students have been prosecuted and in some cases jailed for protesting, is one of tens of thousands of Hong Kongers to emigrate to Britain last year.
“It looked to me after June 2019 that Hong Kong was not going to be under the rule of law,” Leung said, referring to the start of the protests. “For my son’s future, I thought we had to go,” he told CNBC.
Britain welcomes more than 97,000 Hong Kongers
The British National (Overseas), or BNO, visa program was launched to much fanfare in January 2021, with Johnson declaring his pride in a program designed to honor Britain’s “deep ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong”.
The UK government said at the time that the scheme would open the door to around 300,000 to 500,000 Hong Kongers (although up to 5.4 million are eligible) and generate up to £2.9 billion (3 $.9 billion) of net benefits to the UK economy over five years.
Adrian Leung moved to Durham, UK, with his wife and son in June 2021, shortly after the government opened its BNO visa program for Hong Kong nationals.
In the 12 months since, the UK has received 103,900 applications for the visa scheme, which entitles holders and their dependents to five years of residency with a pathway to citizenship. More than 97,000 applications have been successful so far, according to data released by the UK head office on Thursday.
The majority of these candidates are highly qualified and hold professional or management positions.
In a survey of 500 people who obtained the visa, the head office found that seven out of 10 (69%) had a university education and three-quarters (76%) had professional jobs. Almost all (96%) were of working age, with two in five (21%) under 35.
The results suggest a victory for the UK government as it seeks to position itself as a magnet for international talent, even if it closes its doors to EU workers after Brexit. Yet the experience of Hong Kong emigrants who spoke to CNBC was far more nuanced.
A personal and financial prize
While BNO visa holders praised the speed and ease with which applications were processed (usually around six weeks), some said the personal costs associated with the move were high, especially financially.
The five-year visa costs £250 ($340) plus a mandatory NHS surcharge of £3,120 for adults and £2,350 for children. A family of four could expect to shell out £11,940 in fees before even entering the UK.
This comes as Britain faces its worst cost of living crisis in decades amid soaring property, food and energy prices.
Leung and his wife sold their flat, cashed in their pensions and used their savings to fund their move to Britain. They recently bought a house in Durham, in the northeast of England, but not everyone was so lucky.
KT, a nurse from Hong Kong, moved to Nottingham, England in December 2020 at the height of the UK’s coronavirus lockdowns.
A BNO visa holder, who spoke to CNBC anonymously for fear of backlash or being identified by new colleagues in Britain, arrived in Nottingham, England, in December 2020 – at the height of UK coronavirus shutdown.
The source quickly found himself in a catch 22; unable to rent a house without a bank account and unable to open a bank account without a home address.
After six weeks in an Airbnb, the 45-year-old finally found a landlord who would house him and his family in exchange for six months’ rent in advance. His pension, meanwhile, remains held in Hong Kong in dispute.
“Money or salary is not our top priority,” said the source, who along with his wife quit their permanent job as a nurse in Hong Kong to seek “democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties and respect”.
The Chinese Embassy in London and Hong Kong’s Department of Information Services did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Trading professional security for political stability
Like so many other highly skilled migrants from Hong Kong to Britain, the source found himself sacrificing financial and professional stability for political security. He now works under contract in a hospital while his wife works part-time in a warehouse.
“I had a gap year later in life,” he said, adding that he and his family were using their savings to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, a second CNBC source found itself overqualified for most of the available work. The doctoral university professor decided to leave Hong Kong when his “human rights situation deteriorated” to the point, he said, of threatening the future of his children and his own mental health.
After a six-month “nightmare” job search, the 51-year-old has secured a part-time job at a popular central London fast food chain, where he works night shifts.
“If I didn’t have kids my consideration might be different because coming here I had to give up everything – job, money, friends, status,” said the second source, who also expressed on condition of anonymity.
Settle into the community
BNO visa holders are not eligible for social benefits except in extreme circumstances. Instead, the government said it had earmarked £43million for integration projects for Hong Kong’s diaspora, including support to access housing, work and education.
Although the second anonymous source said better arrangements could have been made for the sudden influx of workers from Hong Kong, he still considers himself “lucky”.
Weeks after arriving in June 2021, he secured a place for his son, 14, and daughter, 11, at a “really good public school” on the outskirts of London, where they and his wife live with a friend.
Adrian Leung, who left Hong Kong in hopes of a better future, said his 10-year-old son was enjoying more freedoms in Britain.
“My original mission was to help the kids adjust. Turns out they actually adjusted better than me,” noting that his kids quickly fit in with local friendship groups.
A year into the program, competition for school space is heating up. Reports suggest some schools, particularly Britain’s elite state schools, have had to turn away students from Hong Kong amid record enrollment and interest. Around three-quarters of BNO visa holders arriving in Britain are married or have long-term partners, while two-thirds have children.
“We’re lucky to be settling in a little early,” CNBC’s unnamed first source agreed. “It can be more difficult for newcomers, especially to find school places.”
Hope for a better future
Challenges aside, BNO visa holders who spoke to CNBC said they were grateful for the scheme, which, while not necessarily a requirement, was certainly a “responsibility” of the UK government. Above all, they praised the prospect it presents for a better future.
“After coming here, my son enjoys much more freedom, [including] the freedom to run,” said Leung, adding that he and his family have adapted well to the Durham lifestyle, neighborhood and work environment.
According to data from the Ministry of Interior, an overwhelming 96% of those granted BNO visas say they have no intention of returning to Hong Kong. BNO visa holders are eligible to apply for permanent residency and indefinite leave to stay after five years at a cost of £2,389. The following year they can apply for British citizenship at £1,206.
“British citizenship is definitely our ultimate goal, as I agree with the values of this country,” Leung said, noting that elderly parents are one of his few remaining ties to Hong Kong. “If I could choose, I would live here permanently.”
This is potentially bad news for Hong Kong, which, in addition to losing many skilled locals, is also facing an exodus of expats as foreign workers tire of Beijing’s zero Covid policy.
“I don’t think it will get any better,” CNBC’s second source said. “Hong Kong’s space is now intertwined with politics in China. This means an increase in authoritarianism.”